Billy Pilgrim plays a very influential role as the main character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. Since the novel is based entirely on Billy Pilgrim’s interaction with the environment around him, pinpointing Billy’s state of sanity on the scale of normality helps the reader determine what is really happening, and what is a figment of Billy’s imagination. Before making the decision regarding Billy’s state of mind, one must first establish the parameters of what is considered sane and what is not. What one person may consider insane another may consider pure genius. The dictionary definition of ‘sane’ is: free from mental derangement; having a sound, healthy mind. However the general consensus for ‘sane’ is a lot closer to: having or showing reason, sound judgment, or good sense. Once those guidelines are set up, one can proceed to analyze Billy’s state of mental health. Since Billy is a fictional character in a book and the man who wrote the book is dead, the only information available to someone trying to analyze Billy is through Billy’s actions/thoughts/experiences and the speculations of other readers.
Luckily one is not required to delve very deep into Billy’s past before coming across tragedy. At a very young age Billy is thrust into the middle of World War Two. He is ill equipped and has no fighting training or experience. During the battle of the Bulge Billy becomes lost with one other soldier and two scouts. While hiking through the underbrush in German territory Billy is overcome with cold and waits for the eventuality that is death to pass over him and remove his soul from his body. Instead Billy becomes what the narrator describes as “unstuck” in time. This is the first time that Billy ever experiences ‘time travel’. There are at least two ways to interpret this scene. In the first one, the reader assumes that Billy is in shock, is delirious, and has a very vague connection with the outside world. This thought is followed by the next logical idea that since Billy is nearly incapacitated, anything odd he experienced in this time frame did not actually happen. However every Yin has a Yang. The second way this could be interpreted is that Billy’s mind has lost touch of reality to the point it sheds its boundaries regarding time, freeing Billy from the human confines of viewing time in a linear fashion. Since the decision regarding Billy’s sanity is based purely on a reader’s personal opinion.
A reader would do well to create a mental tally chart of notes. If the first interpretation makes more sense, simply put a mark in the ‘insane’ column, however if the second interpretation floats your boat, make a mark in the ‘sane’ column. Between the first major occurrence and the second, Billy is faced with minor issues that may or may not play an influential role on Billy’s state of mind and so even though they play minor roles, it is important that they are mentioned and taken into account. While Billy is a prisoner of war he is treated poorly, underfed, kept in a crowded train car full of viral and bacterial diseases and scented with the touch of death. It is during this time that Billy manages to make the entire train car hate him, causing him to draw further into the safety of his mind. Whether this train ride actually affected Billy or not is up to the reader to decide.
The second of Billy’s major experiences that carries the capability to instil a mental illness in an otherwise healthy being would be the bombing of Dresden. While Billy was being used for labour in Dresden, his own country fire bombed him along with the rest of a city full of civilians. Billy waited out the bombing in an underground meat cooler along with a group of other POW’s and their guards. After the ground had cooled, the POW’s emerged from their safe haven and was faced with what can be described as the moon’s surface. Billy was eventually ordered to help collect the bodies for a mass burial. Now, whether it was sitting underground listening to an entire city being levelled, or the retrieval of dead bodies or both that scarred Billy, it is hard to know. However Billy did have a flashback of the bombing during his eighteenth wedding anniversary that caused him to freak out. However there is no direct evidence that the bombing caused Billy to go insane and only the reader can decide if it was pertinent to his mental stability or not. Another traumatizing incident endured by Billy was the combination of him being the sole survivor of a plane crash followed by his wife’s untimely death.
While Billy was on his way to an optometry convention with several other optometrists, the plane he is on crashes. He is the only survivor and is rushed to the hospital. When Billy’s wife hears what happened, she rushes to the hospital. On her way there she ends up crashing the car and loses her exhaust system. She ends up dying of Carbon Monoxide poisoning right as she stops in front of the hospital. Because of Billy’s constant time-travelling, he never really knew his wife too well so the odds of him feeling overly distraught because of her death are really quite minimal. Also because he has adopted the Tralfamadorian view of death, he would probably just imagine that now she is in a better place in her life.
So even though this may not be the happiest point in Billy’s life, in this author’s opinion, it is doubtful that it has altered his state of mind, however everyone is entitled to their own opinion and so a reader may interpret otherwise. Although looking at Billy’s past may give hints as to his sanity, looking at his actual thoughts would be a lot more helpful in making the final decision.
Findley, Timothy. The Wars. New York: Penguin Group Australia, 1977.